Predicting where the NBA Western Conference teams will finish hasn’t gotten any easier this season. The difference between fourth and tenth is almost splitting hairs and injuries are messing with expectations. The final positions of every team in the Western Conference playoff picture – including the Mighty Spurs – will come down to health, the unforeseen progress of young players and a significant helping of blind (or bad) luck.
Projected Playoff Teams
1. Los Angeles Clippers – Projected 58-24, last season 57-25
It seems like everyone has forgotten about Doc Rivers and his two young dominate big men that have evolved into young veterans. The Clippers still feature one of the best point guards of his era in Chris Paul and have a roster loaded with savvy veterans. It would be nice to see another tweak to the roster, but this is the Clippers year to shine.
2. San Antonio Spurs – Projected 56-26, last season 62-20
The Southwest Division doesn’t have the horses to take the Spurs down a peg, however, Tim Duncan (38), Manu Ginobili (37), Tony Parker (32) and Boris Diaw (32) didn’t get any younger and first place overall is probably too big a reach this time. The Spurs are tough, resilient and arguably the best coached team in the NBA. It really won’t matter what position they end up in when the playoffs arrive, however, Father-time catches up to everyone eventually doesn’t it?
3. Oklahoma City Thunder – Projected 53-29, last season 59-23
Before Kevin Durant was injured, the Thunder were slated to compete for first overall and as Durant shouldn’t be away for long, they remain contenders to reach the Western Conference Finals, however, it isn’t getting any easier. Oklahoma City remains deep, talented and young. They also face the same issues at center with the effectiveness of Kendrick Perkins and the youth of Steve Adams when they face the best in the West.
4. Golden State Warriors – Projected 52-30, last season 51-31
The risk in Golden State is injuries. The Warriors improved defensively last season and won 51 times despite games missed by Andre Iguodala (19), Andrew Bogut (15) and David Lee (13). The Splash Brothers make the Warriors an offensive machine with amazing comeback ability and the additions of Shaun Livingston and Leandro Barbosa give the Warriors some much needed veteran depth at guard. If the team can stay reasonably healthy, upping last season’s win total should be a breeze.
5. Dallas Mavericks – Projected 51-31, last season 49-33
Dallas upped their playoff chances over the summer by improving defensively with Tyson Chandler and giving Dirk Nowitzki more room to operate by spreading the floor with Chandler Parsons. The Mavericks are a veteran team that will be even harder to guard on the perimeter and a little tougher to score on inside.
6. Portland Trail Blazers – Projected 50-32, last season 54-28
Portland exceeded expectations last season and have staked a claim on a playoff spot for the foreseeable future. However, this team is built around their starting five playing huge minutes with little to no room for anything to go wrong. The additions of Chris Kaman and Steve Blake should permit the Trail Blazers to maintain last season’s success, but that alone won’t be enough to win as many games as last year.
7. Memphis Grizzlies –projected 48-34, last season 50-32
Vince Carter is an upgrade over Mike Miller and will give Memphis an offensive boost off the bench, but no one should be expecting any surprises from this group. This team isn’t build for the long term, but the Grizzlies should be able to hold their own in the West once again and be a tough out in the playoffs.
8. Denver Nuggets – Projected 46-36, last season, 36-46
The Nuggets won 57 games in 2012-13, then lost their Coach, GM, Andre Iguodala and Corey Brewer to free agency and Danilo Gallinari and JaVale McGee to injury. Head Coach Brian Shaw should have all of his injured players back and the addition of Aaron Afflalo provides a big boost to this lineup. Denver has a solid starting five and a good bench. They should bounce back strong this season.
On The Outside Looking In
9. Houston Rockets – Projected 46-36, last season 54-28
The Rockets bet it all on acquiring a big name free agent to play with Dwight Howard and James Harden and when the smoke cleared, Omer Asik, Chandler Parsons and Jeremy Lin were gone and all Head Coach Kevin McHale had to replace them was Trevor Ariza. The Rockets have a great one-two punch in Harden and Howard, but they are almost punchless after that. Unless someone steps up to fill the craters left by the Rockets loses, there will be no joy in Houston this season.
10. Phoenix Suns – Projected 45-37, last season 48-34
The Phoenix Suns were a run you out of the gym team last season and they’ll be just as dangerous and just as much fun to watch this year. Unfortunately, in the tough and improving middle of the Western Conference, holding steady means losing ground and the loss of free agent Channing Frye didn’t help the Suns prospects.
11. New Orleans Pelicans – Projected 38-44, last season 34-48
The mash unit that was the Pelicans last season has the talent to grab a better record and possibility even challenge for a playoff spot, if – and it’s a big if – everyone comes back from injury as good as before and the injury bug doesn’t bite anywhere near as hard as it did last season. Returning from injury are: Jrue Holiday (stress fracture), Eric Gordon ( knee surgery), Tyreke Evans (knee surgery) and Ryan Anderson ( neck problems). If New Orleans didn’t have bad luck they would have no luck at all.
12. Sacramento Kings – Projected 31-51, last season 28-54
The Kings were a much better team after the trade with Toronto that landed them Rudy Gay. They won 38 percent of their games with the new lineup. The impact of replacing Isaiah Thomas’ 20 points per game with the veterans Darren Collision and Ramon Sessions remains to be determined, but the real thing holding Sacramento back has been waiting on the superstar level talent DeMarcus Cousins to grow up and become the player everyone believes he can be.
13. Los Angeles Lakers – Projected 30-52, last season, 27-55
It’s hard to know what to make of the hodge-podge of talent Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak has put together other than this group of players should win more games than last year. A group of castoffs that other teams had believed in before and two aging superstars returning from injuries in Steve Nash (40) and Kobe Bryant (36) could surprise people on any given night. However, Nash is hurting already and expectations are low.
14. Utah Jazz – Projected 27-55, last season 25-57
The very young Jazz are another year older and wiser. Still too young and inexperienced to be a significant threat on most nights, they will win more games than last season.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves – Projected 25-57, last season 40-42
The Timberwolves are loaded with young exciting potential superstar talent. If Minnesota can develop Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine, Anthony Bennett and Gorgui Deng into the players they are envisioned as becoming and can retain them long term, the future looks bright. The big question is, will Head Coach Flip Saunders play Kevin Martin, Corey Brewer, Thaddeus Young and Nikola Pekovic and let the team’s future rot on the bench for a few more wins?